Slatkin and the NSO – On the Road (and in the sky) again

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Music is in the air. Or at least 100 musicians are.

It’s May 19th and the National Symphony is flying from Madrid to Lisbon to play the last of its 15 concerts on their European Tour. London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna, among other places, were just a few of the cities we played on this 2002 trip.

Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

Think again.

All this was done in 19 days. There were 16 different aircraft involved. 25 trips were made by bus from the airports to the hotels and concert venues. The instruments were loaded in and out of the halls 17 times. Three bus trips within the UK. 20,000 tons of luggage and equipment.

Oh yes, there were also 13 border crossings and, amazingly, only one lost passport.

So why do it?

Well, for starters, we represent the Capitol of the U.S. and as such, act as ambassadors for its cultural aspects. We are able to promote music by American composers. Each concert had at least one piece by an American and, in a couple of cases, the whole program consisted of works by Americans. What we bring to these leading centers of music, a unique set of qualities, showcase the orchestra and position it comfortably within the parameters of the great ensembles of the world.

But we also pay a price. Travelling with musicians, staff, crew and tour promoters is not an inexpensive matter. The Boeing Corporation put one million dollars toward the tour but still there are many more costs to consider. And the logistics can be a nightmare. One missed bus connection, or even encores running into overtime, can add up to an overrun to the tour budget.

Most of us don’t think about this, as our focus must be on our performances. We do not even have much time to enjoy the cities we visit. Consider today for example. The concert in Madrid last night began at 10.30 in the evening, quite normal for the Spanish Capitol. Some in the orchestra went to try to get a bite to eat after so did not get back to the hotel until close to two in the morning. Buses began picking up the players at noon to go to the airport. Our flight to Lisbon arrived at 2:30 (there is a one hour time difference) and we got to the new hotels around 3:30. Just two hours until the next bus takes us to a reception at the US Embassy, which will last until 8:00. Back on the bus for the concert hall and the performance, which begins at 9:00. Hopefully something to eat after, but we leave for the airport at five in the morning.Two flights to get home, one to Frankfurt and the next to Dulles.

Now this is extreme, but most of the time, excluding the four days that are contractually required off, it is bus, plane, bus, hotel, bus, concert, bus. Not exactly the easiest of schedules.

But through all this, there are very few voices of complaint.After all, we are here to work. And that has gone very well indeed.

It would be difficult to single out the high points, as there have been many, but for the orchestra, I suspect there was one night that was very special. We had two soloists on this trip, the pianist Mikhail Pletnev, and violinist Joshua Bell.Both had played with us at home and would meet us at various points in the tour. Near the beginning of the trip, we learned that Josh’s father had suffered a stroke. We put all kinds of contingency plans in place, assuming that we would not see Josh on the trip at all. But he arrived in Hanover, Germany for the first of his performances. Later that night, his father took a turn for the worse and Josh flew home the next day.

Ljubljana and Vienna were the next cities he was to have played. We adjusted the first concert and did without a soloist. But the presenter in Vienna insisted on one. It took a while, as I did not really want to lose the Bernstein Serenade that Josh was playing, but we did have the young violinist Nikolaj Znaider available to play Bruch instead. So that took care of the all-American program we had planned. The other major orchestra work that we were carrying was the Fifth Symphony by Prokofiev. But the Vienna public had already heard this piece on the same series earlier in the season.Our librarian, Marcia Farrabee, had fortuitously brought along Scherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, which we had played just before the trip began. It is filled with solos for various members of the orchestra and everyone felt that this is what we should do that evening. An hour rehearsal was added so we could play through the concerto and review some spots in the Rimsky.

The electricity in the hall was palpable. Everyone on the stage rose to the occasion and although there were some who regretted the loss of the American program, it was impossible to deny the strong aspects of the orchestra. It was as if we had planned to do this all along. Sadly, Josh’s dad passed away a day later, but he rejoined us in Madrid, playing as soaringly as before.

Berlin also proved very special. Germany has always been tough on the NSO. But not this time. Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, former director of Carnegie Hall and now intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic, spoke to the orchestra before our brief rehearsal. He reminded all of us that a free Berlin did not exist were it not for America, and so there was a very special reason for us to be there. It also happened that we were the only orchestra from the States to appear in that city this season. Members of Berlin’s major orchestras came to our performance and all were impressed by the cohesive sonic qualities of the NSO.

This concert also coincided with two other significant events.It was my son’s eighth birthday, and my wife and he had joined the trip a few days earlier. The 16th was also the worldwide opening of the new Star Wars film. Like most kids of all ages, this was a date that was marked in many people’s calendars. So for that evening, we played as one of the encores, the Imperial March from the second of the films.Usually we play a patriotic Sousa or Bagley march, but this seemed the right thing for that day. And the audience loved it.

Each stop provided its own highlights. Everyone will carry away different memories of this trip. For me, a tour is the best way to get to know a little more about the individuals who make up the orchestra. We all become closer. We learn more about who we are as a group and how we relate to each other. And we try to represent our country in all of its positive aspects.

On May 30th, we will take the stage of the Kennedy Center once again for our last set of subscription concerts of this season. An increased sense of pride should be evident. We hope that our audience at home feels the same pride in us.It will be good to get home.

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